Monday, October 26, 2009

Effects of a News Media Fast

Since most news media nowadays are electronic in either their production, distribution, or delivery, and this blog is about engineering ethics, which relates to the right use of technology, including news media, I think the following personal reflection on a recent experience of mine falls within the greater ambit of what I'm trying to do here.

Recently I had been feeling more than the usual amount of hassle and anxiety. Ever since I began teaching, fall semesters have always been more stressful than spring semesters, and for various reasons this one has been worse than usual. Of late I had fallen into the habit of taking in the following news media daily, if not more often: National Public Radio news once or twice a day (at least half an hour total), the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, a well-known biweekly conservative magazine, and the magazine's daily set of blogs online as well which I read during lunch. The health-care debate was the nominal reason for such newshound behavior, but beyond a certain point the desire to hear or read news becomes its own justification—in other words, a habit.

Among the spiritual disciplines of both Christianity and other religions is the discipline of simplicity—of doing without things that are not necessarily harmful in themselves, but can distract us from more important matters if not placed under conscious control. Muslim believers around the world recently wrapped up the large-scale spiritual discipline called Ramadan, which involves a total dawn-to-dusk fast that runs for several weeks. The 19th-century author and preacher George MacDonald said something which I cannot find the exact quote for, but the sense was, "A man is diminished by anything outside himself which he thinks he cannot do without"—other than God, that is.
With these thoughts as background, I decided at the beginning of last week to go a whole week without listening to, watching, or reading any news media.

Of course I was immediately faced with the question of what constitutes "news media." I think my closest brush with breaking the fast happened in a doctor's office when I picked up a trade journal on radiology, and read about some recent advances in medical imaging technology. I suppose technically that was news media, but not the kind I was trying to avoid. For the most part, I succeeded in avoiding the thing I had sworn off from.

The point of any fast is not to see how many gold stars you can get by following the rules, but to practice the discipline of resisting one's desires, ordering them instead to a vision of the good. My vision of the good involves Christianity, but I recognize that other people follow other visions of the good as well.

So much for the reasons; what were the results?

Well, obviously I had more time to devote to other things, although frankly I didn't notice it that much. One consequence was that I hauled out an old portable CD player and instead of listening to NPR during a half-hour of exercise, I listened to the sound-track album of the Coen brothers film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" I don't know much about the art of sound recording (as opposed to the science), but that CD is one of the clearest and most fun-to-listen-to music recordings I have. The film itself was a rare combination of comedy, tragedy, and history (being based on Homer's Odyssey), and I found my ability simply to enjoy the music was greater than I have experienced for many months. I can liken it to what former smokers say about being able to smell flowers for the first time in years, soon after they quit smoking. I don't know how far we can take the analogy between cigarette smoke and news media, but there seems to be some subtle connection there.

I can't say my whole life turned into a tranquil drifting on calm seas. There were plenty of minor troubles (for instance, in a moment of haste I broke my wife's favorite coffee cup, a promotional item from Hewlett-Packard I received years ago with a liquid-crystal coffee thermometer on the side and Maxwell's Equations printed inside), but I perceived an overall lowering of an annoying kind of background tension or angst that had been bothering me for many months—really, ever since the health-care debate geared up in earnest last summer.

I have now stepped off the no-news-media wagon, deliberately, commencing with the Sunday paper yesterday. But I'm seriously considering making a news media fast a part of my routine. Much news these days is repetitive anyway, since it consists of recycling or tweaking the same things to fill the 24-hour cycles of a growing number of media outlets. So if you ignore the whole mess for a week, you're not likely to be seriously behind unless we have another 9/11 tragedy or something equally earthshaking during your fast.

One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, was a professor of English at Oxford and Cambridge University, and famously ignored newspapers and radio most of his life. He used to say that if anything really important happened, someone would tell him about it sooner or later. It wasn't his job to keep up with the latest developments, and if your job does require you to do that, a media fast wouldn't be practical. But unless you'd be endangering your livelihood by doing so, I recommend trying it for a week or so. You may be surprised at the results.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Deep Corruption of State-Sponsored Gambling

Long-time readers of this blog (both of you) know that I am no friend of gambling. One way to express my stand succinctly is to place myself on a spectrum of opinion ranging from the pro-gambling extreme of no legal or moral restrictions at all, to the anti-gambling extreme of total prohibition root and branch, all the way down to the private Saturday-night poker game among friends. On a scale where 0 is total-pro and 100 is total-anti, I'm about 85. I see no reason to interfere with small-scale gambling among friends and acquaintances, but when gambling becomes a large-scale business from which people earn their living, I start to get uncomfortable. Some new information I ran across recently has turned mild discomfort into acute dismay. But it is a dismay that few people share.

Like any habit, gambling can be addictive. Just as packs of cigarettes carry health-warning labels and booze ads caution users to "drink responsibly," many ads for lotteries and casinos feature 1-800 numbers to call in case you think your gambling is becoming a problem. What I didn't realize until I read Maura J. Casey's article in the November First Things magazine, is that many casinos make a huge fraction of their profits from a small number of gamblers who, by almost any definition, are addicted to the slots. And the slot machines are where an increasing amount of casino revenue comes from.

Casey cites a study by Harrah's, one of the big Las Vegas operations, that revealed the source of 90 percent of their profits: only 10 percent of their customers. Other studies from places as diverse as Nova Scotia and Australia confirm this pattern. So a very small number of people pour money into slots and other games literally as fast as they can push the buttons, and these people make the casinos profitable. And Casey shows how Harrah's has turned to scientific studies to optimize the design of slot machines so that people are not distracted by anything else and can play as often as ten to fifteen plays per minute. Clearly, someone in that state is not a fully rational individual, making the so-called informed choice that casinos claim as their justification for existence. "We're not forcing anyone to play," they say, but when you have a multi-million-dollar corporation with state-of-the-art monitoring and design teams on one side, and some poor cabdriver from Hoboken on his two-week vacation on the other side, most people would say it's not a fair contest.

Add to this the well-known fact that poorer populations spend proportionally much more of their income on gambling than wealthier folks do, and you have a classic case of exploitation. Not only do poor people spend more (one study cited in Scientific American showed that people who earn less than $12,400 a year spend an average of $645 a year-—over 5% of their gross income—on lotteries alone), but one neuroeconomist has found that simply feeling poor makes you more likely to gamble.

I am ashamed to admit that the Texas state lottery—a thing I thought the Baptists here would never allow—uses some of its revenues to support higher education, and indirectly pays my salary. I don't feel strongly enough about it to quit my job, though. That is one of those prudential judgments one has to make, like paying taxes despite the fact that the government spends some of your money on things you don't approve of. But this pattern of government sponsorship of gambling—either directly in the case of state lotteries, or indirectly in the case of state taxation of casinos—creates a deeply corrupt conflict of interest.

When poor, defenseless people are exploited by large, well-funded, well-organized corporations or institutions, there are only a couple of ways they can seek redress. They can organize themselves, but this is hard and poor people generally don't have a lot of free time to devote to organizing boycotts and going on protest marches. Or they can turn to the government for help. By any reasonable political philosophy, one important function of government is to defend people who cannot defend themselves against the depredations of powerful interests. But in the case of legalized gambling, the powerful interests either are supporting the government, or are the government. So this explains how hard it will be to turn back the corrupting tide of state-sponsored gambling that has seeped into nearly all states (Utah and Hawaii being the only exceptions by now), and that has insinuated itself into state budgets as what many view to be an essential revenue stream, especially in these fiscally constrained times. So there is almost a built-in barrier against doing anything through the legislative process to turn back the tide of legalized gambling.

I have a natural hope and a supernatural hope about this matter. The natural hope is that history's pendulum will eventually swing back. Lotteries were common in the early days of the republic—I believe Harvard's founding was partially funded through a lottery. But in the 1800s, public opinion turned against gambling, and if it has happened once, it could happen again. My supernatural hope is that God will act where governments refuse to help the exploited. I don't know when, where, or how, but that's up to God. As for the people responsible for the exploitation, well, the sooner they realize what they're doing and stop it, the better.

Sources: Maura J. Casey's article "Gambling with Lives" appears on pp. 37-41 of the November 2009 issue of First Things. The Scientific American piece on neuroeconomist George Loewenstein's study of how feelings of poverty affect gambling can be found at And one of the many studies showing how poor people spend a larger percentage of their income on gambling than other groups can be found at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Washington Metro Deaths: The Accident that Wasn't Supposed to Happen

One of the things I like the most about visiting Washington, DC is its efficient, clean, and easy-to-use subway system. Whenever I need to visit Washington, I usually fly to the Baltimore-Washington Airport and then take public transportation from there. A car is a liability in Washington, as far as I'm concerned, because you can get to most places of importance on the subway. Washington's Metro is one of the newer of the nation's major public subways, having opened in 1976, and from the start it embodied computer-controlled systems of signaling and braking. So along with many other admirers of that system, I was shocked to read last June 23 of an accident the previous day that ultimately claimed the lives of a train operator and eight passengers. What went wrong?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in its slow, methodical way, is still investigating, but a compilation of news reports on Wikipedia can allow us to get a fairly good idea of what may have happened. The accident happened during the afternoon rush hour, just after 5 PM. As is often the case, Train No. 214 on the Red Line, one of the major north-south arteries, was stopped between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, waiting for another train to clear the Fort Totten stop.

Trains have been waiting on tracks ever since there were trains and tracks, and in the pre-automation days a system of block signals was devised to warn oncoming traffic that the block of track ahead was occupied. When the engineer saw a yellow signal, he was to slow down, since it meant that there was another train in the block beyond the next one. Blocks were spaced far enough apart to allow plenty of room to stop the fastest train moving at a legal speed, and for the most part the system worked as long as engineers were paying attention and the signals were working.

While we will never know exactly what the oncoming train operator saw (she was killed in the accident), we do know from records that her train, No. 112, left the Takoma station at 4:57 PM. From what I understand, the Metro trains can operate in either an "enhanced" manual mode or a completely automatic mode. Operators can delay the train's departure to accommodate laggards who won't pull their arms out of the doors, for instance, but the system is also automatically supervised by braking sensors that presumably stop the train long before it could collide with another one. However, if the operators do their job, these emergency systems rarely come into play, and I can see how both operators and maintenance people might get lazy about making sure the automatic safety systems are in working order. According to reports, Train 112 was in automatic mode when the collision occurred.

At any rate, some time before 5:03 PM the operator of Train No. 112 applied the manual brake. This wasn't enough to keep her train from plowing into the rear of 214, telescoping onto the rear cars. "Telescoping" in a train collision means that one car rides up on top of another, usually doing great damage to both cars since the stationary car smashes much of the moving car's insides and vice-versa. Any people who happen to be in the way do not usually make it out unscathed. Although members of the U. S. Army who were present made heroic rescue efforts, they were not sufficient to prevent the nine fatalities and numerous injuries that resulted.

In tests on June 25, NTSB officials found that the track circuit located at the site of the stopped train failed to detect a test train placed on it. This is highly significant, since a similar failure would account for the accident. If the automatic systems didn't receive a signal that the No. 214 was stopped on the tracks, they would not have engaged and the only thing that would have averted the accident was a manual intervention by the operator. Why wouldn't the track circuit work?

The apparently simple task of figuring out whether a multi-ton railcar is present on a set of tracks is not as easy as it seems. Signaling currents have to be detected in an electrically noisy environment with large AC power currents running nearby to run the cars. The system has to work despite corrosion and oil on tracks, varying pressure on wheels, and a number of other factors. Down here in Texas, a new surface commuter rail system in Austin has been delayed repeatedly for many months partly because the train-detector track circuits have not yet worked properly. Perhaps a whole new concept of train detection is called for if the present systems are so flaky. But I'm not a railway engineer, of either the driving or designing kind, so I will refrain from second-guessing those whose job it is to fix such problems.

While we will have to wait to see what the NTSB ultimately concludes about this accident, it looks like it may well have been a fatal example of the old "garbage in, garbage out" saying. If the automated distributed braking systems don't have valid data to work with, they're not going to stop the train. And a harried, overworked (or perhaps inattentive) operator can't always be counted on to take action when she sees that a collision is imminent. Some of the Metro tunnels snake around and bend in ways that make it impossible to see far enough ahead at all points to avoid a collision, even if you paid all the attention in the world.

In the meantime, the next time I go to Washington, I'll still take the Metro. But I may make it a point to get into one of the middle cars.

Source: The Wikipedia article on this accident appears at and was my primary source for this blog.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Microethics, Macroethics, and the Working Engineer

Normally, we don't deal much with ethical theory in this blog, but every so often it's worthwhile to look at the underpinnings of why we think about engineering ethics, and ways to think about it. A distinction that you may find helpful in sorting through engineering ethics questions is the difference between so-called "microethics" and "macroethics."

You may have encountered the micro-macro distinction first in an introductory economics course. Microethics, you were told, deals with the individual decisions of householders or business owners with regard to pricing, buying, and selling things and services. Macroethics, on the other hand, deals in the large-scale economies of industries, nations, or the globe as a whole. While it would be nice if microeconomists could ignore macroeconomics and vice-versa, I recently read an article saying that if everyone in the recent economic downturn had acted in a way that was sensible and rational on an individual basis, we would pretty much be in the mess we're in already. That is, sensible and even ethical individual decisions can sometimes lead to large-scale disasters nonetheless.

The same can happen in engineering, which is why Joseph R. Herkert, among others, has been writing about the microethics-macroethics distinction for close to a decade now. Joe (as I know him) is Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology at the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University. He points out that for most of the history of engineering ethics, the decisions of individual engineers were taken to be the meat and potatoes of the subject. While this was good in the sense that no one had studied the matter as a formal academic topic before, the approach tended to brush aside larger issues affecting entire industries or countries.

For example, in the days before extensive environmental regulations were passed in the 1970s, it was still possible for companies to install expensive antipollution equipment (assuming it was available), and to be good environmental citizens. But if an individual engineer at a highly polluting chemical plant in, say, 1955, made a unilateral decision to spend millions of dollars reducing pollution, it would have affected the firm's bottom line adversely. In an industry where no one else was spending such amounts, the engineer's company would have been put at a disadvantage, and might even have gone out of business, even if the engineer didn't get fired first for making what would have been viewed as a money-wasting decision. So while we today might view that engineer as a farsighted pioneer whose actions were a good example for others to follow in later decades, in the context of the 1950s such a decision would have run afoul of a macroethical regulatory and economic environment that was dead-set opposed to the idea.

Macroethics in engineering simply takes into account the fact that even if everyone makes good microethical decisions, you can have systems and legal frameworks and large-scale institutions in place which nevertheless cause harm, and need to be addressed from an ethical point of view. Since macroethics matters cannot generally be changed at will by an individual engineer, you may wonder why we should even bother to think about them. After all, what can one engineer do to change an entire industry or nation?

More than you think. There are politically active engineers, but not that many. In a democracy, voting is one way an individual can influence policies at the macroethics level. Also, by explaining technical matters to the public and educating the general population about the technical realities and limitations of a macroethical matter, engineers can perform a great and much-needed service. Most people have no idea how any of the technical marvels they use every day are brought into being, and so they have even less of an idea that there are limits of any kind. There is a persistent rumor that the major automotive companies have had a long-range electric car hidden in their back rooms for decades, but suppress it because it would threaten their current business. Anyone who knows a little technically about how battery-powered cars work and the current state of the art of battery technology can figure out why this isn't the case (unless the companies have done a very good job of hiding some unimaginable physics and engineering!). While engineers have to be careful in public speaking, not talking down to or insulting their listeners, a careful, clear explanation of basic technology can go far to alleviate what an engineer might think of as irrational fears or beliefs.

But one lesson it took me a long time to learn is that even irrational beliefs influence behavior. The U. S. nuclear-power industry once led the world in the development of advanced nuclear reactors for generating electricity on a large scale. But a series of public-relations disasters and one real disaster that was largely harmless to human life (Three Mile Island) turned the U. S. public against nuclear power. Instead of acknowledging this attitude and trying to deal with it, advocates of nuclear energy largely dismissed it as "irrational," and the industry is now trying to undo thirty years of neglect and wandering in the wilderness.

Even individual engineers need to think about macroethical issues from time to time, even if you don't deal with them on a day-to-day basis. By taking an engineering job, you implicitly endorse the firm, the industry, and the nation that claims you. So in that sense at least, macroethics matters to every individual engineer.

Sources: The first article on microethics and macroethics applied to engineering appears to be J. R. Herkert, "Future Directions in Engineering Ethics Research: Microethics, Macroethics and the Role of Professional Societies," Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 7, pp. 403-414 (2001).